Early diagnosis of autism in children could help them to gain greater “developmentally appropriate” skills, according to an expert in the condition.
Dr Cynthia Johnson, director of Cleveland Clinic Children's Centre for Autism, was speaking on World Autism Day, April 2.
One in 160 children globally are believed to autistic, according to the World Health Organisation.
The condition is characterised by difficulties in communication and the presence of restrictive or repetitive behaviours, Dr Johnson said.
“Parents with toddlers and preschool-aged children should be on the lookout for delayed speech and unusual communication development,” she said.
“Possible symptoms can include repetitive speech or phrases, lack of imitation of other people’s actions and emotions, atypical, repetitive and restricted play, engaging in repetitive motor movement such as hand flapping or finger flicking, or oversensitivity to sound.”
Treatment includes one-on-one behaviour therapy or training for parents to help enhance their children’s social skills.
Lego as therapy
One approach that has been used since the late 1990s to impressive effect involves the use of Lego.
It was developed by Dr Daniel LeGoff, a paediatric neuropsychologist, after he noticed two of his patients with significant communication difficulties chatting excitedly about Lego models while waiting for their appointments.
The approach aims to help children with autism improve their communication skills by working together to build a set.
Teams of three are assigned the role of either an engineer, builder or supplier.
The engineer, who holds the instruction book, tells the supplier the pieces they need to give to the builder. And the builder has to wait for instructions from the engineer.
The company was not traditionally involved in the approach, but has become increasingly so over the years.
In 2019, Lego's UAE office asked a speech therapist who uses the technique at the Hope Abilitation Medical Centre in Dubai to teach parents.
It has now teamed up with Play Included, a UK-based social enterprise, to help to introduce the Brick-by-Brick concept more widely across the region after positive feedback.
Working in collaboration with the Lego Foundation and Play Included, centres including the Hope Abilitation Medical Centre and Sanad Village, began developing programmes to provide training and guidance to their teachers and psychologists.
“It is effective because it addresses the challenges the kids with autism have on a couple of levels. One is of course the communication skills it helps with,” said Urszula Bieganska, head of marketing at Lego Middle East and Africa, who has a child with autism.
“The other is the social interaction, which children with autism have. The biggest challenge for them is that they could be accepted.
“It takes them longer to put the words together, for example, or they express themselves in a different manner. Some of them struggle with verbal communication.”
Children in the UAE
Research suggests there are rising rates of autism in the bilingual population.
But it was not known until recently if that presented those with autism with additional disadvantages in language and learning skills.
“Our understanding of this area remains very limited because only a handful of studies have been published worldwide,” said Dr Shereen Sharaan, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology affiliated with The University of Edinburgh and Emirates Autism Centre, who led a study of bilingual children in the UAE to examine the relationship.
“My research aimed to understand the impact of bilingualism on the thinking and learning skills of autistic children in the United Arab Emirates – this is the first study worldwide to take place in the Arab world.”
The research found being autistic and bilingual is not associated with any disadvantages in language and learning skills. In fact, there are benefits, she said.
“In fact, parents reported advantages in learning skills like attention, memory, inhibition and flexibility for bilingual autistic children,” Dr Sharaan said.